Colin Stetson: A Hidden Musical Gem

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| December 21, 2022

Hereditary might be one of the scariest films of the 2010s—if not ever. The way that dread and atmosphere are so effectively used to draw the audience into the horrifying events that unfold on screen is masterful, to say the least, but one of the main reasons why the film feels so…wrong is because of the score. 

The score almost makes the movie breathe, by which I mean that the tension and release written into the very bones of it undulate like a living thing. And at the very end of the film—when the track “Reborn” plays—it feels like a victory despite what has clearly just occurred on screen.

The person responsible for this score is none other than Colin Stetson–a saxophonist and composer from Ann Arbor, MI, where he got a full ride to the University of Michigan School of Music. He’s done work on projects like Color Out of Space (2019), The Menu (2022), and Red Dead Redemption II (2018). Colin has an innate understanding of how to move and influence people with his emotionally charged pieces, and while all of his work is worthy of being in his expansive catalog, I want to focus specifically on his solo albums and pieces. 

His solo albums are typically composed of just himself playing saxophones of varying types (such as tenor or baritone) and other woodwind instruments. Listening to his music for the first time, it feels repetitive and almost trance-like, as there are melodies, basslines, and percussion that seem to repeat themselves in an almost circular fashion. It sounds haunting, but the most incredible part of his work is that that’s all done on one instrument.

One instrument on one single track.

How is this possible? Colin uses a variety of advanced techniques to achieve these haunting sounds. For starters, he employs a breathing technique called “circular breathing.” This technique requires the user to breathe in through their nose while they store air in their puffed-out cheeks. As they inhale, the air in their cheeks simply flows out for the air from their nose to replace it instantly for a sustained stream of air. This allows Colin to play without needing to take a break to breathe.

Colin also sings and screams into his instrument while he plays it. Yes, you read that right. He uses the woodwind instrument’s composition to his advantage to create two different sounds simultaneously. Unlike brass instruments, woodwind instruments only require a stream of air to play the notes by pressing one of the myriads of keys (as opposed to changing your embouchure, your mouth’s position, while playing on a few keys like a trumpet.) 

Colin Stetson playing a saxophone at a concert.
Colin Stetson playing a saxophone at a concert.

Because he can just use a stream of air with keys to change the sound coming through the instrument, Colin can sing/scream on top of the rhythmic, cyclical tune he’s already playing with just his circular breathing, creating a haunting, ethereal effect.

Additionally, Colin uses microphones to enhance the sound of not only his singing (with one on his throat) but also by putting microphones on the keys of his instrument. This allows him to create his own percussion/beat by hitting the keys with varying levels of strength—all while playing the instrument, circular breathing and screaming into it.

It’s truly incredible.

Hearing this music is haunting enough, but watching it being played live is like hearing the voice of a god. I was fortunate enough to see him play at the Constellation theater in Chicago, and I’ll admit it was something of a life-changing experience. 

If you want to get into his music, I’d recommend listening to his song “Judges” from the album “New History of Warfare Vol. 2: Judges”. It employs all of the techniques I’ve previously mentioned, and its fierce rumbling feels like something I can’t quite put into words. If you work while listening to instrumental music, I’d highly recommend any of his catalog; in fact, I’d highly recommend checking his music out in general!

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